"My passions were all gathered together like fingers that made a fist. Drive is considered aggression today; I knew it then as purpose."—Bette Davis, The Lonely Life, 1962.
On Thursday evening, February 18, 2010, Queer Icon: The Cult of Bette Davis was screened at Santa Rosa's Rialto Cinemas as a benefit screening for Face to Face—Sonoma County AIDS Network. Gary Carnivele, the host of Outbeat Salon on KRCB—Sonoma county's NPR radio station 91FM—moderated the Q&A after the screening.
As synopsized previously on The Evening Class, Queer Icon: The Cult of Bette Davis examines the many aspects of the gay fascination with Bette Davis, featuring film clips of Bette's most iconic moments, juxtaposed with camp burlesques of her by Matthew Martin and others, including Charles Pierce and Arthur Blake; a profile of Martin highlighting his long identification with Davis; and interviews with fans, entertainers, and gay cultural historians—exploring the link between the gay community and Bette.
As director Mike Black has written at the film's website: "'Masquerade or Drag?' film scholar and Bette Davis specialist Martin Shingler has asked with regard to the Hollywood legend's on-screen femininity, masking as it does that anything but soft or submissive juggernaut, a virtual anti-vamp, at the core of her greatest roles.
"But Davis's sexual ambiguity is only one of the many interpretive challenges as regards her enthusiastic gay following. Does the exaltation of the vividly self-punctuating Davis represent no more than a travesty of the social charade of gender? Or are the hopelessly inadequate and yet all-encompassing twin tyrants Femininity and Masculinity charlatan avatars of the one true goddess ... with icon worship evolving as a means to solidarity among sexual outlaws?
"And if Bette Davis is the object of practically religious adoration, then what can be said of those actors in drag who impersonate her, entertaining gay audiences with farcical exaggerations of her most notorious mannerisms? How best to categorize their function in the subversion of sexual orthodoxy that is part theater and part liturgy?"
Mike Black's rhetorical questions raised their pointed little heads yet again at Queer Icon's benefit screening Q&A. Gary Carnivele kicked the session off by noting that film producer Carole Black Summers and director Mike Black, twins, were born and raised in Corpus Christi, Texas. As children they became interested in making movies but had to stop production on Attack of the Cactus because it was "too scary." Mike moved to San Francisco in 1973 and Carole followed in 1984. They released their first documentary Queer Icon last year to favorable reviews.
Carnivele asked Carole Black Summers why she decided to make a film about Bette Davis and her dedicated gay fans? "Once we decided to do a documentary," Summers responded, "we knew we wanted to do something about movies. My question to Mike was: why are Bette Davis and Joan Crawford such icons for gay men? We started talking about it and Mike said, 'Let's narrow the focus to Bette Davis.' Then we ran with it because we thought it was a great idea; no one had done anything like that or discussed that. I wanted to know the answer. Hopefully, we found out the answer."
Carnivele then asked Mike Black about his research methodology, including which Bette Davis films he watched to prepare for the documentary? Black answered, "Carole and I both were—and always have been—Bette Davis fans, so we were familiar with a lot of her films already. We re-watched some films, saw some new films, and read some new books. I'd read most of her biographies, including her autobiography The Lonely Life [ghostwritten by Sandford Dody]. Ed Sikov [Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis] has a relatively recent biography of her and I read that; it's a very good book. Matthew Kennedy has written a book about Edmund Goulding [Edmund Goulding's Dark Victory: Hollywood's Genius Bad Boy], who is a director who worked with Bette Davis four times so we got that book. We did a lot of book reading—but, we weren't really making a documentary that was a biography of Bette Davis or a comprehensive review of her career—so there was a limit to what that kind of research would do for us. Also, there's vast scholarly literature out there about—not just Bette Davis and gay audiences—but, the whole film spectatorship experience and what the film viewing experience is thought to be about. Reams have been written about the whole process of identifying with images on the screen and I didn't want to squeeze our documentary into some kind of pre-constructed academic thesis. I didn't want too erudite but, perhaps, too abstract an explanation of Bette Davis. I wanted gay men to tell the story themselves. The only real Bette Davis scholar that I sought out was Martin Shingler, only because he writes interestingly about her on-screen sexuality."
Asked how they assembled the talking heads for their documentary, Summers offered: "Once we decided we wanted to do this, immediately we knew we wanted to interview John Triglia and Scott O'Brien. We knew we had to get Matthew Martin because we had to have someone current who was impersonating Bette Davis and—once he was on board—then everything just took off. Everyone who we talked to led us to another person."
Black offered a specific example: "Michael Guillén is an old friend of ours and—once he agreed to be interviewed for the film—he, in turn, referred us to Matthew Kennedy who, in turn, referred us to Andre Soares, the editor of Alt Film Guide, an on-line film magazine. Andre doesn't appear in our film, but he referred us to Allan Ellenberger who does appear in the film and is also responsible for giving us the footage of Jimmy Bangley, who appears in the film.
"I relate all of that to the way a gay subculture itself gets transmitted. In the film Bernardo Espi and Marc Huestis talk about watching all these old movies on TV in New York and, later, Michael talks about how Bernardo introduced him to Now Voyager at the Castro Theatre, while Marc Huestis has latched on to the reference to Bette Davis in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which was also an initial point of reference for Matthew Kennedy. The point is: we're not born and raised in gay families and yet—through a chain of personal relationships and cultural osmosis—we get connected to a gay subculture that has seized on these public images (like Bette Davis) hidden in plain sight and used them to consolidate a distinct community identity."
With regard to how difficult it was to secure the multiple film clips used in the documentary—especially with regard to its application to a gay focus—Black explained: "There's a long complicated answer to that; let me think of a quick evasive answer. In 2005 there were guidelines published for documentarians who want to use copyrighted material under the principle of fair use. Fortunately for us, there's a special unit at the Stanford Law School called the Fair Use Project, which vets the claims of documentarians, using these published guidelines from 2005. They do so on a pro bono basis so that filmmakers like Carole and me—who have no money to pay for big-time attorneys—can get their legal advice. We submitted a cut to them and they got our claims of fair use and all the clips are used under the fair use principle."
Curious about whether Bette Davis worked with known gay directors and actors, Black fielded the question to Matthew Kennedy, since Davis worked four times with Edmund Goulding who was well-known for his "pansexual tastes." Kennedy confirmed there were some anecdotal stories about Davis working with Goulding whose bisexuality "was an open secret." "Specifically what he would do," Kennedy described, "is he would enact how he wanted a scene played by actually substituting for a female actor in a love scene. So this was how he got to smooch with Tyrone Power, Errol Flynn, and other people that he worked with. There are some accounts of people joking about this technique of his on the set of The Great Lie. I try to imagine this scenario of Goulding saying to an actress, 'I'm going to show you how to play this scene' and then proceeding to stage this same-sex romantic scene with an actor. I would think an actress would be inhibited by seeing a director's re-enactment; but, many actresses said it worked well. There was much praise for this technique. But I've never heard of any other director doing that before or since."
"She had a lot of gay friends," Black added. "When she moved to Los Angeles, she had a gay roommate. That was written about in Ed Sikov's book; but, other authors also mention it. So she had a lot of gay friends. But that didn't stop her from saying bad things about gay people."
Approaching the ambivalency of Bette's performance of femininity in her films where—on one hand—gay male identification with her stages a compliment, while—on the other hand—gay male usage of her becomes a parody of women, possibly even a put-down of women, Black recalled, "In my generation of young gay activists who moved to San Francisco, there was a political argument made against drag precisely because it did seem to be mocking women or, at least, mocking femininity. It also denied a gay identity. It made everything either feminine/women or masculine/men. It didn't allow for a masculine gay man to be attracted to another man."
I added: "What I find interesting about the gendered arguments against an icon like Bette Davis is that it implicates the elasticity of the icon. A very good study could be made of how an icon shifts in meaning with each generation. What Bette Davis meant to gay men in a previous generation—especially with regard to cultural understandings of femininity and masculinity—is perhaps not the same as what she means now within our continually evolving definitions and cultural applications of gender. I object to the masculinization of Bette Davis. It demeans her real success in an industry that—at that time, as I understand it—allowed women to succeed. Everyone's always talking about how women were persecuted at that time; but, actors like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were real stars with real clout within the system. Even if their roles sometimes capitulated to what people expected of women, what we should be admiring or focusing upon is their strength and their success, which—unfortunately—gets capsized into masculinity."
On that note, Carnivele asked Scott O'Brien—author of Virginia Bruce: Under My Skin and Kay Francis: I Can't Wait To Be Forgotten—to comment on Davis's career and how she successfully fought the studio system for independence. "The first screening moment where I felt, 'Oh, there's a Bette Davis line' is from Cabin in the Cotton (1932)," O'Brien recalled, "where Richard Barthelmess flirts with her and she—blonde at that time—says, 'Ah'd love t' kiss ya, but ah jes washed ma hayuh.' She didn't really seem interesting to me until Of Human Bondage (1934). Leslie Howard wanted Ann Harding for that role because Ann had played prostitutes on Broadway several times; but, by then, she had become a gallant lady and she and RKO probably thought Of Human Bondage was not the direction for her to go. So Bette Davis took that role by the horns. At that point she started having some clout with her studio. She was on loan from Warners to RKO for that film. Then she was nominated for Dangerous (1935)—because she'd been overlooked for Of Human Bondage—and because of the clout she had at Warner Brothers, she went on strike. Jimmy Cagney also went on strike, back to back.
"Then another catalyst in her career was the downfall of Warner Brothers top star Kay Francis. Kay wanted a role in a light sophisticated comedy that Warner gave to Claudette Colbert so Kay took Warner Brothers to court and here she was their top star and the highest paid actress in Hollywood. They decided to punish her. She was up for three roles—Dark Victory (1939), The Sisters (1938), and the one role she had campaigned for: Empress Carlotta in Juarez (1939)—and these roles were given to Bette Davis. All of a sudden Bette Davis was able to move into Kay Francis's soap opera turf. The fact that Davis had success in her campaign against Warner Brothers and got these highly-touted roles helped her redefine her career.
"There were two other times she redefined her career. After Beyond the Forest (1949)—with her line 'what a dump'—she got All About Eve (1950), which had been scheduled for Claudette Colbert. Then in 1962 she did Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? I see those as the moments that insured her longevity as an icon."
A lot of the reasons given for the popularity of Bette Davis among gay men did not strike one woman as being that different from her popularity with a general audience. She wondered if Bette Davis had become an icon to gay men—not due to her overall popularity—but to its subsequent parody; if the parody wasn't the bonding agent among the gay male community?
Black countered, "That's a very good point. As Anthony Slide says in the documentary, Bette Davis movies were made for a general audience and she was a huge star. Her films were not made for a gay audience. I still think she had a special meaning to the gay community, but I also appreciate that it was her parody that helped solidify her image in the gay community. Someone like Charles Pierce kept Bette Davis alive for many years as the icon in the gay community and he was parodying her. So I understand your point and even agree with it to some extent. As I said earlier, these are images we all own. These are common property. That a particular community grabs onto it and uses it for their own purposes is unavoidable, even though you can say, 'Everyone knows she's a great actress. She's a strong person. She was this and she was that.' There are reasons for everyone to admire that. But that doesn't keep gay men from using her performances for their own purposes, even without parodying it. You can still admire all of that and use it for your own purposes and help create your own community image without parodying it. But, again, I think the parody—through people like Charles Pierce—helped keep her iconicity alive for a couple more decades."
Asked about his editing style, Black explained: "The editing started even before we shot the first footage of Matthew Martin back in August 2008. I had already started working with the film clips. Then we started doing the interviews as well and the editing was going on simultaneously with all the shooting. But when all the interviews got done, Carole and I sat down and independently reviewed every single interview, every second of the interviews, and consulted with each other about what we thought were the salient points that should be in the film somehow, even if it wasn't that person saying that at that time. I had been making notes since the beginning. I had an outline. It was a back-and-forth between the interviews and the narration I was writing and the editing itself that went on for months. There really was some thought to the whole process, though—if you look at the film—it looks rambling in the beginning. The first half of the film doesn't quite have the structure that the second half of the film does; but, that was pretty much deliberate, in the sense that I first wanted to document the phenomenon that there were these gay men who truly are attached to Bette Davis and what that was all about on a phenomenal level. The editing involved a couple hundred hours at least. Other than saying I had an outline and notes and Carole and I conferred, I don't know how to explain exactly how it ended up being what it is."
Asked what Bette Davis meant to him, longtime Davis fan Bernardo Espi replied, "She means a great deal to me. The most important word I can think of is 'liberating.' People of my generation, when we first became aware of Bette Davis it was a liberating factor for us because in most of her roles she showed the struggles that we as gay men were going through and still go through in our daily lives: discrimination, the loss of family, many different things. She brought all that to her roles. What happens, though, as generations see Bette Davis, is that they see the high campiness of her acting and that's mainly brought about by people like Charles Pierce and Matthew Martin. That high campiness is important; but, I also think it's important for gay men to appreciate the fact that in her roles she showed us the struggles that we were going through and how to face those struggles and regain our own self-esteem."
One fellow wanted to know if there were any male icons of comparable stature for the gay male community and I offered, "William Haines was probably an actor that gay males could identify with. Valentino. Ramon Novarro. Primarily I would say actors from the silent era. Concurrent with Davis, I'm hard-pressed to think of anyone. Though, later, actors like James Dean, Montgomery Clift, even Marlon Brando, introduced an attractive tolerance to their performances."
Naturally, as we were driving home to San Francisco, Matthew Kennedy and I were beleaguered by l'esprit de l'escalier. Kennedy regretted that he had not responded more fully to the issue of parody so I asked him to relay his thoughts. "Bette exists on multiple levels," Kennedy told me. "You can look at her as a great actress. You can look at the body of her work. You can look at her individual films. And you can look at her as this catalyst for gay communion. There's Bette and there's the performance of Bette and they are two different things. To Mike and Carole's credit, they have merged the two within the subject of their documentary. They talk about the phenomenon of Bette as the inspiration of drag and they talk about her as a great actress. But the performance of Bette by non-Bettes becomes the unifying force. The parody of Bette Davis is its own thing; it builds gay community. We can laugh as much as we gather around to appreciate her art. They're separate but connected."
That was, of course, what I was trying to stress by emphasizing the elasticity of an icon, which is not far different from considering the breadth of an image and all it can contain within itself, even if contradictory. For me this is the mysterious spectatorial dimension of film appreciation. Movies are a literal product that projects onto a physical movie screen, yes, but the imagery of films also projects inwardly, subjectively, transliterally, and that intrapsychic effect has equal value—if not more—than narrative structure, the shadow of performance and the interpersonal dynamic of projected image and audience.
I had expected Gary Carnivele to ask me about the importance of Now Voyager as a coming-out story for gay men and what I had given thought to was that the process of coming out itself—long considered the seminal moment of gay self-identification, if not self-acceptance—evolves over generations just as our understanding of cultural icons evolves. In other words, what coming out meant to a gay man in the 1950s is a totally different process than what coming out meant to me in the 1970s and is equally distinct from what coming out means to young queers today, even as they group under the overarching narrative experience of "coming out." Each generation mines cinematic images for their specific relevance within everchanging cultural, historical and temporal parameters. General audiences may have appreciated Bette Davis's performances for their current and popular box office success; gay men may have read into her performances the struggles of their own lives (as Bernardo suggested), especially with regard to the performativity of gender and power; the next wave of gay men may have balanced the artist with her parody; and even later that balance might be necessarily historicized as the building blocks to an increased understanding of the iconic resonance of a singular career. It's an ongoing assessment and reassessment. And, as Matthew Kennedy also suggested, there is no "requirement" that young gay men of this generation gather together around the icon of Bette Davis. But the process of community-building itself, as inflected variously through generations, is of ongoing value. I'm glad to have been part of a document that takes a look at a truly unique approach at community building.